New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski isn't a normal human being. He is a futuristic android infused with a puppy heart with the sole purpose of becoming the greatest tight end in the history of the game. So it's worth taking notice when he plays merely like a superstar instead of a supernova.
Gronk collected 67 yards on four scoreless receptions, which is a great day by the standards of any other tight end in the league. But for Gronk, he's used to much more. Other than games when he was clearly hampered with an injury, this was Gronkowski's lowest yardage on a day where he caught zero touchdowns since week 6 of 2012, when he collected 61 yards in a loss to the Seahawks.
Was there an issue? Did the Cowboys just have a great scheme? Let's take a look at Gronkowski's day as a human being.
Sure, Gronk had his patented "lol get off me" play of the game, but even that was a backshoulder throw with the defender draped on him. He caught two passes on slants with Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones clinging like a backpack, and Gronk was able to use his size to box out the defender. He caught a fourth with a rub route.
Watching the All 22, it was clear that Gronkowski never generated consistent separation from his defender to the point where Tom Brady would be able to deliver the ball in the open field. Jones was with him step for step, or the Cowboys boxed the tight end between a couple linebackers and a safety.
How did Jones manage to shadow Gronk in such an effective manner?
"I was playing aggressive over the top most of the game," Jones said in his post game media session.
By sitting over the top in man coverage the entire game, Jones and the Cowboys were able to avoid the miscommunications that the Patriots saw in coverage over the first three weeks. Gronk was running free in those games because linebackers were passing Gronk to defensive backs, leaving a window for a conversion. With Jones in tight coverage the entire time, there was no transition window for a quick pass.
Another issue that the Patriots had to adjust for as the game wore on was Gronkowski's specific routes. The Cowboys were getting pressure on Tom Brady very quickly, which prevented deep plays from developing. A handful of Gronkowski's best routes (up the seam!) require Brady to stand in the pocket and deliver a pass while looking off the safety. With the pressure hitting home, the Patriots weren't able to see those big plays develop.
In addition to struggling to generate separation, Gronk didn't have his best day of blocking.
Belichick is going to chew Gronk a new one on this missed block on 3rd and 1. Absolute whiff against S Barry Church pic.twitter.com/qiavIT161m— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 12, 2015
Here, Gronkowski misses a block that allows the Cowboys defensive back to blow up a short yardage conversion. While you'd like to see LeGarrette Blount drive through a defensive back, Gronkowski needs to do a better job with his blocks.
Like, he kind of gets the job done, but he shouldn't be spun by a DB like this. pic.twitter.com/AOecHUBdLM— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 13, 2015
For some reason, Gronkowski's blocking technique has been very inconsistent over the past couple of seasons. There are times where he's lights-out and could be mistaken for Joe Thomas, but then there are others where his fundamentals fail him, and it seems like it's the same issue every time.
Whether it's an issue with his arm (all the surgeries) or his leg (torn ACL), he's not driving through his base and he's reaching with his upper body. This costs him plenty of leverage and allows defenders to rip and shed his block fairly easily. He's much better off the line where he gets to play in a phone booth, but as a tight end he needs to improve his consistency in space.
Can other teams copy the Cowboys defensive scheme? Well, do they have the most athletic defensive back in the entire league? Do they have a pass rush that can get to the quarterback in under two seconds? If so, sure, and Gronkowski is still going to collect his 60+ yards. But I think the Broncos are the only other team in the league that can offer anything close to that combination.
Hopefully Gronkowski can improve his blocking next week against the Colts, and he'll definitely have better luck generating separation. He'll be back to his android levels soon enough, but it's important to review how a team made Gronkowski look human so the Patriots can make the necessary adjustments to keep him super in every condition.